Metro job fair attracts hundreds with military experience

November 14, 2011

Outside the Marine Corps, few in the civilian world appreciated Halbert Hunter’s skills as a generator mechanic, making sure the electronics that drive gears and other parts on heavy machines worked.

But it was different inside Metro headquarters Monday morning.

Hiring managers from the power and automated train control divisions met the 30-year-old at the stairwell and ushered him to a job fair designed to attract military personnel to work at the transit authority.

“Not many people get my field,” said Hunter, of Clinton. “I never thought doing backup power generation mattered or had that much relevance outside of the military world until now.”

Hunter was one of about 550 people who attended the event. Metro is seeking to fill more than 200 positions, including bus operators, rail mechanics, escalator repair technicians and administrators. The event marked the second time Metro has held a recruitment fair designed to target those with military backgrounds.

“It’s good business for us to hire folks in the military or with military experience because they are used to not working the traditional eight hours during the day, five days a week,” said Metro General Manager Richard Sarles. “They’re used to working odd shifts. They have discipline, pay attention to details, follow the rules, know how to also think on their feet and operate safely.

“Those skills translate to what we’re looking for at Metro.”

This year, Metro attracted twice as many attendees. Organizers said they think the higher turnout was in part a reflection of the economy, given that unemployment in the D.C. region has risen compared with its level last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Plus, they said, the event was better publicized this year through social media outlets, networking groups and employees.

Hunter said he heard about the recruitment fair through a friend who works as an automated train control technician for Metro. He told me: “ ‘You can’t be making that much working behind the counter selling auto parts.’ He was right,” Hunter said.

Pay ranges from about $48,000 for a beginning Metro Transit Police officer to $98,000 for a top-level bus engineer.

After 30 minutes of chatting with managers about his experience, Hunter, who served four years in the Marines, was scheduled to return for more testing.

“I see myself back on the grinder, getting greased down and dirty,” he said. “I like to know equipment I worked on is up and running and on the ready.”

Some of the job applicants were fresh out of the military and unemployed. Others expected to retire soon. Many had served at one time and were looking for new jobs.

R. Lynn Myers, 40, flew in from Fairburn, Ga., after hearing about the job fair Friday from a friend who works for Metro. She retires from the Army on Jan. 1 and wants a job in operations or administration.

“It’s great this is for military only before you have to go out and compete with corporate America,” she said.

John Thomas, 34, took off a day from his job as an assistant manager at a drugstore in Silver Spring to visit the job fair. As a specialist in the U.S. Army National Guard for 16 years, he was hoping his experience working on — and driving — Humvees and other heavy military vehicles would land him a job at Metro.

“I need something more stable than retail,” he said as he waited dressed in a dark, pinstripe suit. “The benefits and the pay got me to come here.”

The problem for Metro is that officials say there often aren’t enough qualified applicants. Metro typically puts 500 applicants through its bus operator training classes, but only 40 to 50 usually make it through the commercial driver’s license test, background checks, drug tests and other screenings, top-level managers said.

Metro officials said it’s even more difficult to fill skilled positions that require more training and prior experience. The automated train control and power division of Metro, for example, needs 24 technicians in its department of more than 200.

“Schools don’t teach high voltage, and that’s what we need our employees to know,” said Eric Pryor, a manager in Metro’s power division. “Finding people is a challenge.”

Metro needs to fill more positions as it pushes forward with a $5 billion capital improvement plan to rebuild the deteriorating rail system. Watchdogs have expressed concern that employees are working too many long shifts and too much overtime because of vacancies and vacations.

Jason Browner, an aerospace engineer in the Air Force Reserve at Dover, came looking for a full-time job as an escalator repair technician after his uncle, who is a mechanic for Metro, told him about the hiring event.

Browner, dressed in his Air Force uniform, spent years working on C-5 aircraft, which he said gives him skills to do mechanical and hydraulic work on Metro’s escalators and elevators. Plus, he was attracted by the salary and benefits, hearing he could possibly make $80,000 a year.

“My job skills in the military can be used in a position here,” he said. He has applied for 40 jobs in the past four months.

“Hopefully this one works out,” he said.

Dana Hedgpeth is a Post reporter, working the early morning, reporting on traffic, crime and other local issues.
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